It starts with a beat.
In screenwriting, a beat is the smallest unit of story. It can be an action that propels the plot, a twist that alters the story’s direction, a shot that establishes tone, mood, theme; or dialog that reveals characters. Beats are the bricks in which the story is build, and it is how the audience experiences the story.
One of the steps of screenwriting involves writing out the beat sheet*, a list of all the story elements that can be assembled into the actual story. When seen this way, we can see how each beat effects one another; and when properly ordered, how the story unfolds. It’s a basic framework in which writers use to grow stories, adding details, shading and depth as needed to create a deeper resonant experience for the audience.
I like to think the beat sheet is a good framework to use when designing a game that wants to tell stories through its systems, mechanics and world, a game that provides players the tools, and vocabulary to craft his own experience and create his own story. A game where any meaningful action the player takes becomes a beat in their story.
“I scrounged the wreckage for what food and materials I could find. A nearby fireaxe became the key in which I hacked scattered luggage for what treasures they held. When darkness descended, that same fireaxe bore me the gift of firewood. Then dried leaves, and a lick of flame from a liberated lighter birth me a flame to last me through the night, hopefully. Tomorrow, I had to see what else I could do.”
Of course the game has to respond in kind. Good games are build on strong player feedback, and these feedback range from cheerful celebrations of color and sound, impressive animated sequences, to digital loot that triggers that endorphin drip in your brain. These can be the beats of the story as well. “I got this fantastic sword from surviving an epic battle with the dungeon’s final demon.”
But it can’t just be a list of cool things happening next to one another.
Here, I’ll let Film Crit Hulk explain it.
“Stories are defined by cause and effect. Perpetually. Constantly. Vividly. Stories are built on that simplest of mechanisms. This causes that and that causes this and so on and so forth. It’s about setups and payoffs. It’s about action and reaction. It’s about information followed by dramatic consequence. Cause and effect lend meaning to events. They link scenes together. They give wholeness to seemingly separate ideas. Cause and effect are the linking of your chain. They make a story a story”*
So when the game responds to the player’s action with a beat of its own that moves the story forward, or reveal part of its world, it contributes to the players overall experience of his story. And when the response isn’t entirely predictable, it can become this constant back and forth, between player and system, between character and world, to create a story that’s unique to the player’s decision.
That’s what games can do that the other mediums can’t. Where their story has to be ordered as some point; filmed, written, animated and told, a game’s story can unfold as long as the player has meaningful actions to take, and the game has the responses to return in kind.
Or course, all this works under a certain context, and context is key in the telling of stories.
Hopefully, I’ll get to that idea next week.
* – Another good example of this idea is Trey Stone’s and Matt Parker’s “But” and “Therefore” talk. Where they essential explain the idea of how each beat affect the following beat into order to create the story.
– I was trying to work the phrase “Player actions are the verbs of the game” somewhere up there, but it didn’t work. But I like it as a phrase, because it essentially sums up what I’m trying to do in thinking of game mechanics and features as vocabulary in telling a story.